Oscars: How 'La La Land' Songwriters Matched Their Music to the Film's Big Moments

Austin Hargrave
From left: Benj Pasek, Justin Hurwitz and Justin Paul wrote the songs in 'La La Land.'

The musical trio and more original song nominees — from Lin-Manuel Miranda to Justin Timberlake — reveal how they crafted their tunes.

Whether it's a teenage chieftain's daughter pondering her destiny as she sings "How Far I'll Go," an out-of-work actress saluting outcasts in "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" or even a pair of trolls convincing their friends that happiness is within reach with "Can't Stop the Feeling!," this year's best original song Oscar contenders play integral roles in propelling their films' narratives.

For La La Land lyricists Benj Pasek, 31, and Justin Paul, 32 — who worked with the film's composer, Justin Hurwitz, 32 — "Audition" and their other nominated entry, "City of Stars," served vital but very distinct functions in Lionsgate's original musical, which nabbed a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations. Though "Stars" initially was meant for Emma Stone's actress character Mia (it later switched to Ryan Gosling's jazz musician Sebastian), Pasek and Paul understood from the start that the gentle piano tune could speak for anyone who questions where following their muse to Los Angeles might lead. "In a way, its tone would set the tone for the rest of the songs," says Paul, adding that he and Pasek wrote much of it on a plane from New York to L.A. to meet the film's writer and director, Damien Chazelle, for the first time. The song, which like the film feels contemporary but also is a nod to the past, served as their own audition.

With "Audition," the pair, in going for a much more personal flavor, pulled from a monologue that Chazelle had written for Stone. " 'City of Stars' deals with the theme of the movie, whereas 'Audition' is from Mia's perspective on what it means to be someone who pursues a life in the arts," says Pasek. Those distinctions will be captured by John Legend, one of the film's producers, at the Oscar ceremony, where he'll perform both songs.

Though Disney's animated film nominee, Moana, takes place on a fictional Polynesian island thousands of years before La La Land, Lin-Manuel Miranda's nominated song "How Far I'll Go" — which he'll sing at the Oscars with Auli'i Cravalho, who voices the film's title character — strikes a similar sense of yearning. To get into young Moana's mindset as she sets sail in an effort to save her island community, Miranda, 37, tapped into his own sense of longing and adventure from his teenage years, even going so far as to return to his childhood bedroom in Manhattan. "That notion of staring at the horizon and wanting to know what's on the other side of that, that's a universal feeling," he says. "Especially when you're a teenager and everything's a possibility and the distance between you and your dreams is like an enormous gulf."

Fellow first-time Oscar nominee Justin Timberlake, 36, also will perform his film's nominated song at the Dolby Theatre. He says the inspiration for the buoyant "Can't Stop the Feeling!" — co-written for DreamWorks Animation's Trolls with Max Martin, 45, and Shellback, 32 — came not just from the script but also from his now-2-year-old son, Silas. "I'd never have written it if it weren't for him," Timberlake tells THR. "Watching him jump around to 'Can't Stop the Feeling!,' starting to learn words because of that song — it's the best thing in the world."

Sting, 65, and J. Ralph, 41, are the outliers among this year's competitors: Both have been nominated before — Sting three times, J. Ralph twice — and their entry, "The Empty Chair," plays over a closing montage (instead of as part of the narrative) in HBO's documentary Jim: The James Foley Story, about the journalist whose capture and beheading by ISIS was broadcast on the internet.

Ralph points out that the song continues the story and furthers moviegoers' understanding of Foley and his family.

"I wanted to make sure people left feeling some of the warmth that Jim is, and I felt they needed a ferry boat and a blanket back to their lives," says Ralph. "We wanted this to be like a meditation for the audience to sit with [their] emotions and have a moment with Jim's spirit."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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